Don't let tight state finances kill Minnesota's high-tech dreams.
Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner made a notable move with a hockey puck on last Friday's "Almanac" -- and he wasn't even wearing skates. In the public affairs show's Budget Slapshot segment, candidates are asked to distribute 100 pucks on a toy hockey game board to illustrate how they would allocate the state budget.
Horner put 10 pucks into the higher-education zone, signaling an intention to spend about 10 percent of the state's budget in support of state colleges and universities and student financial aid. (Higher ed now receives about 9 percent of the state's general fund.) Then he put two of those pucks aside, explaining, "We're going to save some of that for research."
Horner's gesture highlighted a growing concern among those who seek to develop new high-tech industries in Minnesota. The state's financial squeeze has pinched higher education hard and appears likely to keep doing so in the next several years. Yet the talent and knowledge produced in academic research laboratories are crucial to the economic future Minnesotans want.
How can research be protected? And how can the fruits of research be better translated into good-paying jobs in promising industries? Those are questions that deserve discussion in this fall's gubernatorial and legislative campaigns. Horner made investment in research a prominent feature of his jobs proposal last week; DFLers Matt Entenza and Margaret Anderson Kelliher are also talking about research's value to the state's economy.
Their attention is warranted, not least because of what the competition is doing. Other states that also aim to be home to new technology-based industries have been investing much more heavily than Minnesota has of late in both applied research and assistance to fledgling high-tech enterprises (see box, above right.)
A report to the Legislature by a 16-member public-private study group earlier this year (bit.ly/b3gHyR) warned, "Minnesota's competitiveness, economic well-being and future are imperiled by the lack of a science and technology economic development plan."
Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research at the University of Minnesota and a member of the study group, explained that random, scattershot efforts to boost research and its transfer to industry won't do. "I don't want to create impression that state hasn't made any investments. It has. But they have not been coordinated in a comprehensive program to create synergies and maximize leveraging opportunities."
State government launched a several hundred million-dollar biosciences building program at the University of Minnesota in 2008. This year, it offered limited tax credits to high-tech angel investors and businesses that engage in research.
The 2010 Legislature also laid the groundwork for the kind of comprehensive planning the study group recommended. It created a public-private Minnesota Science and Technology Authority with a mission to develop a policy and investment strategy for boosting high-tech businesses. That 18-member body, composed of representatives from industry, finance and academia, could be the best ally for the next governor and Legislature as they confront the need to build a prosperous future for Minnesota while balancing the next state budget.
The new authority's work deserves heed in business and investment circles as well. At a June 21 ceremony officially attaching the good name of former Medtronic Chairman Winston Wallin to one of the new bioscience research buildings at the U, he spoke bluntly to his fellow business leaders about the situation Minnesota faces:
"My view is, you'd better be in high-tech, somehow. If you're not in high-tech, you're going to be slipping back. That's where the growth is in the economy. A lot of these other states know it, and ... some of them are really going to town on this, with really large sums of money.
"I would like to see the business community, the academic community and the government on a nonpartisan basis get together and start figuring out how to get more research-oriented in this state. ... The business community, in my estimation, needs to get going. We have a lot more ability in business to support this university than we have so far done." Wallin's advice is both sound and timely.
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